Attack a journalist, you’ll do time, federal bill says

A man with a grudge against The Capital newspaper killed five people in a newsroom shooting in June 2018.

Originally published in California Publisher, Fall 2018.

by Jason M. Shepard

When California Rep. Eric Swalwell introduced the “Journalist Protection Act” in early 2018, making it a federal crime to assault journalists, critics said the bill was political pandering and unnecessary because violence against journalists in the United States is not a major problem.

“It is also irresponsible to suggest either that America is a dangerous place for journalists, or that (President) Trump is to blame for this danger,” Amy Swearer, a visiting legal fellow The Heritage Foundation, wrote in the Orange County Register in March.

Even journalism scholars questioned the need.

“Although it has some symbolic and practical value, the bill strikes me as mostly redundant, and it comes at the expense of expanded federal power,” wrote Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at the University of Georgia and free press correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review.

A journalist’s privilege bill protecting confidential sources is a more important legislative priority, Peters argued.

But things changed after a man with a grudge against journalists opened fire in Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland on June 28, 2018, killing Gerald Fischman, 61; Rob Hiassen, 59; John McNamara, 56; Rebecca Smith, 34; and Wendi Winters, 65.

The shooter, Jarrod Ramos, targeted employees of The Capitalbecause of a longstanding obsession he had against the newspaper over a story about his arrest for harassing a woman in 2011, prosecutors allege.

In the U.S., violent attacks against journalists are not unprecedented.

Journalism historian John Nerone studied such incidents for his 1994 book, Violence Against the Press. Nerone argued that violence against the press has spiked when norms and controls break down in public discourse.

History may show we are living in one of those periods.

Last year, more than 20 press organizations partnered to launch the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a non-partisan website dedicated to documenting press freedom abuses. The site is run by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In the first nine months of 2018, the site documented 39 physical attacks, 15 journalist subpoenas, five journalist arrests, and five journalists killed. Last year, the site documented 44 physical attacks against journalists, 15 instances of police search and seizures, and 34 arrests of journalists.

While The Capital shooting wasn’t motivated by political ideology, the incident drew parallels to the 2015 mass shooting in the Paris newsroom of Charlie Hebdo.Shooters killed 12 people and wounded 11 to avenge the magazine’s commentary and cartoons about Islam.

Worldwide, 44 journalists have been killed so far in 2018, and 61 are missing, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Among them include Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, who was allegedly killed by Saudi officials in October.

While the congressional bill’s chances of passage seem dim, recent events show why it’s needed.

In the U.S., threats against journalists may be one side effect of President Donald J. Trump’s unprecedented criticism of press freedom and the institution of journalism.

Trump has called the press the “enemy of the people.” At a particularly vitriolic rally in Arizona last year, Trump said the American press “is taking away our history and our heritage,” saying of journalists: “They’re bad people. And I really think they don’t like our country.”

“Trump doesn’t just criticize media more than he criticizes neo-Nazis — he criticizes them more than radical Islamic terrorists,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz said following that rally.

CNN’s Brian Stelter said that “several members of the media said the President’s anti-press rhetoric was downright dangerous, because it could lead individuals to try to harm journalists.”

Especially after the Capital Gazette shootings, newsrooms are taking threats seriously.

For example, in August, the Boston Globe spurred 400 newspapers across the country to publish editorials defending press freedom and journalism. A 68-year-old man from Los Angeles, Robert D. Chain, didn’t like the campaign.

“You’re the enemy of the people, and we’re going to kill every … one of you,” Chain said in one of more than a dozen calls to the newsroom, according to federal prosecutors.

Authorities traced the calls to Chain’s home phone and wife’s cellphone. An FBI SWAT team seized 20 guns from Chain’s home during a raid in which he was arrested, the Globe reported.

Federal prosecutors charged Chain with seven counts of making threatening communications through interstate commerce.

In other cases, journalists have been attacked by self-identified Trump supporters. In March 2017, an intern reporter and two photographers from OC Weekly in Southern California were physically assaulted at a pro-Trump Make America Great Again rally in Huntington Beach. Taylor Lorenz, a reporter for the Hill, was punched by a protester after the deadly car attack in Charlottesville. And in May 2017, Republican U.S. House candidate (now Congressman) Greg Gianforte body-slammed a reporter from the Guardian in May 2017.

The Journalist Protection Act would amend the U.S. code to make assaults against journalists a federal crime.

While most criminal physical assaults are prosecuted as local and state matters, Congress has made assault against certain individuals a federal crime. These include certain federal officers or employees and their families, foreign officials and guests, and others performing certain official duties.

The bill underscores how attacks on journalists are not just attacks on individuals but also attacks on important national institutions and values. For that reason, the bill would send an important message about the role journalists and press freedom play in supporting American democracy.

“President Donald Trump’s conduct invites violence against journalists,” Rep. Swalwell said in a statement when he introduced the bill, H.R. 4935. “It’s not just about labeling reports of his constant falsehoods as #FakeNews — it’s his casting of media personalities and outlets as anti-American targets, and encouraging people to engage in violence.”

A companion bill was introduced in the Senate in May, S.B. 2967.

“A free, and independent press — a strong Fourth Estate — is essential to the American people and our democracy, ensuring an informed public and holding those in power accountable,” New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. “We cannot condone any physical attacks on journalists or members of the media.”

Jason M. Shepard, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Communications at CSU Fullerton. His primary research expertise is in media law, and he teaches courses in journalism, and media law, history and ethics. Contact him at jshepard@fullerton.edu or Twitter at @jasonmshepard.